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Gratitude Friday?

Friday, March 23, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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This week has been a week of challenges – my assumptions have been challenged, my sense of self, my comfort and even my sense of security.

Someone who goes by the username Goatse (which is apparently a reference to a famous/ infamous internet shock site) left comments here that set off a really interesting series of thoughts, feelings and realisations for me. So this Friday I'm grateful for that, although I am still most certainly not grateful for the vitriol with which he or she expressed those challenges, and I am still reeling from the hatred that seemed to be behind the reference to violence.

I live and work in a country which is not my own – this is not the first time I've done that, but I do often feel the distance between my world and the world in which I'm working is greater here than ever before. When I lived in Gaza I was free to walk the streets, to find my own apartment in a Palestinian neighbourhood and to spend as much time as I chose in the homes of new Palestinian friends. I can say with some confidence that I got to know a reasonably wide range of Palestinians and – through their often excellent knowledge of English and my basic understanding of Arabic – that I had plenty of opportunity to hear from them what they thought and felt about their lives, the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the impact of the presence and work of foreigners like myself.

Likewise in Timor-Leste – although in Timor I was exposed to a much more limited range of people, working and staying in Dili, as I did. I made only occasional trips to the more remote parts of Timor and outside of the capital my inability to speak or understand Tetum made real communication impossible.

Here in Afghanistan I have a few really good Afghan friends, and in the course of my work I get to meet many more, from many different social and economic spheres. One day I'm sitting with Maria Bashir, Provincial Prosecutor of Herat, an intelligent and strong woman with a strong sense of hope for her country and a commitment to building a functional justice system and to eliminating corruption and impunity. The next day I'm sitting in a district prison in Dowlatyar district of Ghowr province, talking with the local prison guard about the long history of tribal disputes in the area and the ongoing dominance of certain Commanders and their factions. When I meet the Chief Judge of Badghis province he is welcoming and open, and his anger at the way aid money is used and misused  is expressed with wit and without personal hostility towards me.

When the Chief Judge of Ghowr province strokes his beard and says that he knows that Westerners are suspicious of the bearded men like him it is with anger, yes, but I get no sense that he wants to hurt me. To educate me, may be, to remind me that this is his country and that he is not impressed by my arguments or my organisation's mandate, almost certainly, but I do not feel threatened by him and I am happy to talk more.

I work with many, many women – from the politicians and Provincial Council members to the women who come to me with requests for help to get out of violent marriages and into safe houses. I have many chances to sit and listen to them, to learn about their experiences, their analysis of the situation in Afghanistan today, their dreams and aspirations.

But I do not feel that I know this country. I have been here only 15 months and I know so little. There are so many complex layers to the history of this place. Christina Lamb, in "The Sewing Circles of Herat" said that if ever there was a country whose fate was determined by geography, it was the land of the Afghans. I have read various texts on the history of Afghanistan and each book I read just shows me more that I do not know.

When I worked with Shinkai Karokhail on a paper for a symposium on gender dimensions of  traditional justice and decision-making mechanisms last year I read hundreds of papers, articles and essays on the subject, and in the end I just kept coming back to the personal views and experiences of Shinkai and her brother Masoud (of the Tribal Liaison Office). I came to the simple conclusion that the many different kinds of conflict that have taken place and continue to take place here have created an environment in which there are no simple explanations and even more certainly no easy answers or solutions.

My life here is often filled with contradictions – as Goatse pointed out I sometimes escape the heaviness of my job. This morning I started out by preparing a report on an incident in Farah two days ago in which a US/ANA convoy reportedly came under small arms fire, and returned fire. The truth of what happened may never be known to me, but this much is agreed upon by all parties – a 6 year old boy was killed, a 4 year old is in critical condition in the ISAF hospital and a 12 year old boy was injured as well. Now I want to go and draw a picture in my sketchbook, or listen to some music, or cook. In the instance he was referring to I can see how my decision to post my visual DNA after reference to civilian casualties could seem callous and frivolous.

I've thought about that. I've decided that I have an obligationto do something about these deaths – I investigate, I try to find out the truth, I make a report which can be used to hold the people responsible accountable. Then I have to let the pain of the death of a six year old innocent child go. That is not the same thing as not feeling the pain, I am far from being desensitised to the horror.

I've been doing this kind of work for seven years. In my first week in Gaza my boss, Raji Sourani, told me that I was going to have to get tougher if I wanted to survive. After two years working with him, I was still crying over the children killed. One day Raji said to me "You know, you never did get tougher. I think, after all, that it's a good thing. It is your soft heart that makes you good at this job". But I can't carry all that sadness, and anger and horror with me everyday. So I remain open to it, I feel it, and then I let it go. Sometimes I do something less noble, sometimes I escape it. Goatse's criticism of that escapism was fair enough.

Goatse also challenged my right to criticise Afghans when there were still deep flaws in my own country. This is an important challenge. After two years in Gaza I went home and worked on human rights issues in New Zealand for four years. I saw racial discrimination, violence against women and children, poverty and massive social and economic inequity. I worked in the ways that I knew how to address those issues in my own country. I own my responsibility, my part in the problem. I certainly see the advantages I've had by being born into a family that falls on the right side of all the equations. But I don't think that the responsibility to act in whatever small ways we can to promote justice is limited to the country in which we happened to be born.

This post is getting long and rambly – I want to tie it all together with a neat conclusion, but I don't have one.

There is so much pain and suffering in this world. This morning Susannah and Thea, two women who have already experienced more suffering and loss than anyone ever should have, are both facing a new pain. I am helpless in the face of that pain. I hold them in my heart while I sit in meditation. I draw on the gratitude I feel at the amazing healing we have known in my family this year and try to send some of that healing power to them both. But beyond that I can only accept that life is filled with challenge.

 

Also this week – news that Italian Journalist Daniele Mastogiacomo was released in exchange for the release of some Taleban prisoners. But Sayed Agha, an Afghan man who was driving the vehicle, was killed after being condemned as a spy by the Taleban commanders who abducted them. Another Afghan man, Ajmal Naqshbandi, who is a local journalist and who assists foreign journalists by arranging meetings and translating, remains imprisoned by their captors. Most articles I've read in the Western press don't even name Sayed Agha or Ajmal Naqshbandi, simply refering to them as 'his driver' and 'his translator'. The news of Sayed Agha's murder was reported in many articles in terms of it's impact on Mastrogiacomo i.e. "his driver was beheaded in front of him".

How of us have the honesty to come out and say that we think (or perhaps more accurately, that we feel) that people who are most like us are more important, more human and more valuable than people who are very different from us? Not many. But over and over again I've seen behaviour that demonstrate that very principle. Sigh. I'm not ready to give up hope for us all, but some days I feel close to it. The best tool I know for avoiding giving in to hopelessness is to take some action, so here is a way to do a small something, an appeal from the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Dear Colleagues —

As of March 21, Ajmal Naqshbandi is still
being held, even though Daniele Mastrogiacomo has been released. The
Committee to Protect Journalists will continue to publicize Ajmal's
case (our most recent release is at
http://www.cpj.org/news/2007/asia/afghan20mar07na.html ), but we all
know that it will not receive much media coverage now that Daniele is
safe.

We all know how much we rely on people like Ajmal to do
our job. Here is one small way we can help him. We are asking you and
your employers to call or message the Afghan Embassy in Washington and
the Afghan Mission to the United Nations, asking the Afghan government
to work to secure Ajmal's release.

Here are the contacts. Phone calls and faxes are best:

H.E. Ambassador Said T. Jawad
Embassy of Afghanistan
2341 Wyoming Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20008
Tel: 202 483 6410

Fax: 202 483 6488
info@embassyofafghanistan.org

AND

H.E Ambassador Zahir TANIN
Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations

360 Lexington Avenue, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10017
                    Tel: (+1-212) 972 1212 or 972 1213 or 972 1221
                    Fax: (+1-212) 972 1216
afgwatan@aol.com

Thanks in advance for any help you can give us.

Bob Dietz Asia
Program Coordinator
Committee to Protect Journalists
330 Seventh Ave, 11th floor New York, NY 10001 +1 212 465 1004    ext 140

www.cpj.org

The
Committee to Protect Journalists is a New York-based, nonprofit,
nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom around
the world.

I felt very afraid when those comments were left on my blog. Living here has made me more aware of my vulnerability. Fear is not an emotion I have lived with very much, it is a debilitating emotion. It binds and it inhibits. All over the world people live with fear and insecurity day after day. It is a driving force in global dynamics. Not a positive force, but a very powerful force.

I want to be challenged, I want to always keep questioning both my motives and my methods. I want to be open to the voices and views of people who disagree with me, even vehemently. But if you are reading this and you want to have that discussion, please try to come to me without hatred. It'll make it much easier for me to let go of fear and step into the discussion.

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11 Responses to "Gratitude Friday?"

  1. AnnieElf says:

    Good morning friend. I’m sending courage your way. I said it all to you privately. Glad to see you writing and allowing comments now. xx ooAnnie

  2. homeinkabul says:

    Hello,
    I am keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. Fear inhibits discussion, puts us all on the defensive and unable to speak. Thankk you for being able to move through it and still remain open.
    “You know, you never did get tougher. I think, after all, that it’s a good thing. It is your soft heart that makes you good at this job”.
    – This is a lesson for me. Bless you and your ‘soft’ heart

  3. Paris Parfait says:

    Dear Frida, do not let what one person says – a person who doesn’t know you and makes snap judgments – deter you from the honourable and courageous path you have chosen. You do much good for others, every single day. And my goodness, just because you work in human rights does not mean you have to spend every waking moment agonising over others’ problems – you’re allowed – no, you NEED some down time to be frivilous and distance yourself from the problems at hand. Everyone who has ever worked in human rights or aid knows this is necessary to avoid burnout. So please stop agonising over one person’s remarks – you have more important things and fun things to do with your life. You do not need to defend yourself, as you have done nothing wrong. You are an inspiration and role model to many. And I salute and applaud you and all your admirable efforts to help others! They are lucky to have you. xo

  4. Paris Parfait says:

    P.S. I’ve just seen that horrible comment from that hateful person and you might consider moderating your comments, so that you approve them before they appear online. I’ve had to do that a couple of times because of someone’s bad comments about others. And through Typepad, you can track back the IP address and email of the person making those bad comments and report them. Bon courage, mon ami! xo

  5. Darling Frida- you are much more charitable than I… there is absolutely no reason for those kinds of comments on your blog. You have a right to post whatever you want when you want on your own personal blog- this is what blogs are for! You are not blogging in a professional capacity here and for any institution in particular- only for yourself and for those of us that love you and want to hear more of your incredible story. You are an inspiration to me and, I think I can safely say, the others who visit you on a regualr basis.
    I would definitely do as Tara suggested in reporting this person…
    Having said all that, your efforts on the behalf of Afghan men, women, and children are to be applauded- can you hear me, dearest Frida?! And thank you for the addresses as well…
    Cheers, dear friend…

  6. lacithecat says:

    Well Hell (and I don’t swear often),
    I too just went back and pondered that person’s wise words. You know, you stick youself out there by doing what you do in ways that the majority can never imagine. And this last post was so vulnerable that I just wish I could come over and give you a hug.
    I don’t know how you do it, but I am glad that you keep trying (and hopefully succeeding) to acheive some personal balance. It sounds like this tour/posting/project is just taking so much out of you … I just don’t know what to say.
    Please take care of yourself, ok?

  7. frieda says:

    Why worry about one person’s opinion unless you DO feel there is some truth somewhere in the comment. Just consider why you are reacting the way you do about his comments!
    I am a Middle Eastern, so I know that region well. When you say, “There is so much pain and suffering in this world”…you are right, but whose fault is it?…I believe it is their own and their religion. I left that region because “human life” has no value, no significance, meaningless. Their religion must go through serious transformation, the way Christianity did in 1400’s with Martin Luther. No Western country can help them transform themselves, no UN organization, no charity group, none from outside world. It has to come from within. Where is their Gandhi Character? who is their Mandela?
    Afghanistan is the country where Rumi was born in 1207. Where is Rumi’s spirit in Afghanistan?

  8. susanna says:

    I just can’t understand how someone could write you such an offensive, angry email when you are making a positive difference in this world. Sure, he or she may have a different opinion regarding the state of Afghanistan but why leave a hateful, threatening comment when there’s an opportunity to start a dialogue? I’m curious to know what your hateful commentator does in his or her daily life…does he or she make a positive difference in this world? Does he or she try to reach past cultural or religious divides to find a common ground? I’m betting that’s a no. It takes more courage to reach out a hand to a stranger than to hide behind a shock website. So sad. Imagine what his or her world would be like is he or she did.
    As for your Visual DNA post being callous or frivolous…good lord! You need to have joy in your life! We all do!

  9. I’m sorry about the vicious post, Frida–I think it must feel like a robber in your house. I think that voices as generous and open as yours offend people who are the opposite– people who are angry and malevolent and think that giving is a sign of foolishness.
    Your new blog is lovely! And as always, it’s a thoughtful read.

  10. Mardougrrl says:

    You do amazing work–wonderful work. You put your whole heart out there everyday, and for that I think we should all be grateful. I’m sorry that someone made you question that. You are amazing, Frida. Truly. You inspire me everyday.

  11. ceanandjen says:

    Oh goodness, I did read that person’s comments last week, and the worst one sent shivers down my spine. The work that you do and the way that you share it with us is nothing short of amazing and courageous. You are clearly a kind-hearted and intelligent woman who works to make the world a better place every single day. I personally do not think that you trying to live your personal life along side your daily work is hypocritcal in any way, shape or form. You must survive, and you must ensure that you continue to have the strength you need to do what you do. Like so many who come here, I believe you to be such an inspiration.

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